This is the fourth article in the remote work and productivity series, focusing on methodologies, best practices, and approaches that can be used to improve productivity.
Series Motto: Being busy is not the same as being productive
In the previous articles of the series, we described how our brains function, showed some of the most common approaches and methodologies that improve productivity, and described the Inbox0 approach. All those topics are extremely important, but they focus more on the current state and execution of productivity to address tasks that have already been planned.
This post explains how to improve another aspect of productivity – task selection. We will explore the subject of long-term planning, how to set ambitious, yet achievable goals, and how to act around those plans.
Align Goals With Your Interests
Let’s start with long-term goals, since these are the goals that shape your life and guide your actions throughout the years. For example, a decision to enter a university will determine the structure of several years of your life but will affect your whole adulthood.
The first important observation about long-term planning is related to perception. People usually overestimate how much can be accomplished in six months or even a year, even while they underestimate how much can be accomplished in a 3-, 5- or 10-year span. The reason is that people are usually optimistic about their capabilities, without considering their own constraints (i.e., unexpected events, side-tasks, etc.), but they do not operate well on a grander-scale of events. This makes sense though if you think about someone in their 30’s – five years is 1/6 of their entire lived experience!
As a result of this perspective skew, long-term goals should be planned over a long timeframe and SHOULD be ambitious – e.g., planning to complete a marathon in six months might be very ambitious for some, but planning to complete an ultramarathon in four years might be perfectly achievable. This looks like a paradox, but we’ll explain why this works later.
The second very important observation is that our long-term goals should be aligned as much as possible with our ideology, beliefs, and personality. This is not always possible, especially in work-related areas (unless you work at a company that you love like we do at CodeLathe), but the better you feel about what you do, the bigger the chance that you’ll reach your goals.
This observation is also very important when setting goals. Maybe you hate to run but you want to include some activity in your life. Set a different yet related goal like cycling or swimming. The idea here is to really think about what you enjoy and what is important to you and then to set goals around those concepts.
Another example – perhaps you want to earn a lot and you love cars. Having an abstract goal to earn millions of dollars per year may not be enough motivation, but envisioning a collection of luxury cars may do the trick. That’s what this whole exercise is about – we will aim to end with 20-30 long-term goals, grouped into categories like health, work, social life, personal growth, etc. These can change over time – these goals are meant to be easily reviewed in the following years and adjusted as needed.
I mentioned the list should contain around 20-30 ambitious goals. How can we determine whether those goals are good or not? This is relatively simple. A good goal should be SMART. Let’s explain the concept:
- Specific – the goal is well-defined and leaves no room for interpretation
- Measurable – it should be possible to measure progress toward the goal
- Achievable – the goal should be possible to achieve (even while being ambitious!)
- Relevant – it should have meaning for the person
- Time-bound – the time-frame for completion should be predefined
Let’s discuss briefly why it is important for a single goal to be SMART. We’ll also go over some examples that are not SMART and may be harder to accomplish.
If a goal is not specific enough, it will be hard to plan the next steps. The statement “I want to own a company” doesn’t say much about the actual goal. In some countries, opening a company takes a couple of hours. This is also closely related to measurability – a goal that says “I want to travel more” is not really verifiable; we need to define what “more” means. For example, “I want to spend two months a year abroad for three years straight” has clear and measurable details.
As I mentioned before our goals should be ambitious, so there is always something pushing us forward. On the other hand, the goal has to be achievable; otherwise, it will inspire a feeling of failure and defeatism, which are major demotivators toward any goal.
Let’s take running as an example. Is completing the Ultra Trail Mount Blanc (UTMB) run ambitious? Sure, it is. Is it achievable? Of course – hundreds of runners complete this run each year. On the other hand, a plan to complete a Mars landing in the next three years is not achievable with the current state of our knowledge and technical capabilities. The same is true for swimming underwater for 45 minutes without the aid of diving gear – some things are just out of our technical and physical abilities, and we should set our goals accordingly.
We touched upon relevance in the previous section – once you align with your goal, it’s much easier to pursue it since you have that internal drive factor.
Setting time constraints on when the goal should be accomplished is another very important parameter. It’s human nature to procrastinate and push off actions, unless the deadline is close. With a well-defined boundary, it is easier to plan smaller steps that contribute to your overall goal within shorter timeframes.
Divide and Conquer
Once our long-term goals are defined, we need to start working toward completion. This is a critical step in all planning: what should be our next action? Time is limited, and productivity is mostly about being able to navigate between those limitations.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, goals should be ambitious (remember – those are long-term goals). The problem is that they can seem unachievable when you start. Let’s use the UTMB run as an example for this section. This is a 170km run with a 10,000m elevation gain. Seems impossible when you think about it, doesn’t it?
The magic is to divide that “impossible” long-term goal into smaller, digestible chunks. The best way to do that is to set a couple of intermediate sub-goals. Let’s say that you’re able to run 10km without huge effort. The ideal first step might be to complete a half-marathon. This could be an appropriate six-month target. The next step might be to complete a marathon the following year. Another one, to complete a sky marathon in two years, and the last one before the main goal could be to complete a shorter ultra-marathon in four years. Considering this outline of goals, you could plan to complete the UTMB in 6-7 years.
With time and a lot of motivation, this goal suddenly becomes doable, which is the most important factor. You start preparing for the half-marathon, than for a marathon, and so on. In the end, you might not even finish the main goal, but the actions you’ll take on the path to completion will still benefit you in significant ways – you will create a healthy habit of running regularly and you will most likely adjust your lifestyle to find time for long activities.
So how do we define those intermediate steps? This is a very hard question with no golden rule. It depends on each task, and that’s why it is so important for each goal to be measurable.
Once we define a couple of in-between steps, we should start planning around them within a shorter timeframe. In our example, we’ve planned to complete the half-marathon in six months. That would most likely require three-four runs per week on average, each taking 30-90 min of your time. You find a good training schedule, apply it on top of your calendar and you’re good to go. If you do that for all 20-30 long-term goals, you’ll find yourself very busy, yet productive! All your actions will guide you toward accomplishing meaningful goals that enrich your life. And that’s a wonderful feeling!
Once all shorter-term plans are identified and planned, you must then be responsible for carrying out these plans. This is really the hardest part – we are confronted with many random tasks and issues that show up on a daily basis. Take these into account and do not plan your days from 6 am to 11 pm. Giving yourself room in your schedule to respond to unexpected events will make your road less bumpy and easier to follow. You can use all the low-level techniques described in the previous blog posts.
There is another very good way to improve in many areas – create habits. This is an important topic and will be covered in the next article of the series.
In this blog post, we explained how to think about long-term planning. Set ambitious goals, aligned with your principles, and you’ll build a lighthouse that will guide you throughout your life. Additionally, you will gain a greater sense of meaning and purpose for all your actions.
Article written by Tomasz Formański